What you need to know:
- Not since the advent of HIV/Aids in the early 1980s has a disease gripped a nation’s imagination as has the coronavirus.
- What is needed is a multi-pronged approach to healthcare because, NCDs too, have been a pandemic.
Has our national response to Covid-19 been overhyped? That’s the billion-shilling question — for not since the advent of HIV/Aids in the early 1980s has a disease gripped a nation’s imagination as has the coronavirus, which was first reported in Kenya 19 months ago.
Vice-chairman of the Non-communicable Diseases Alliance of Kenya (NCDAK) David Makumi fears that focus on Covid-19 has diverted attention from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which already posed a crisis even before the Covid-19 advent. NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, mental health conditions and chronic lung disease. All these tend to be chronic in nature and progress slowly, which tends to mask their gravity.
In Kenya, NCDs include over 20 different conditions like nervous system disorders, sickle cell disease, arthritis, thyroid disorders, lupus, psoriasis, downs’ syndrome, congenital conditions, injuries, epilepsy, dementia, kidney disease, and stroke.
“We are all at risk. NCDs affect people of all ages, gender [and] race both rich and poor and are the second leading cause of death and disability in Kenya,” NCDAK says in its website.
Information from the internet shows that NCDs account for between 39 and 46 per cent of all deaths in Kenya — estimated at 288,000 in 2020 — hence 132,480. This means that, Covid-19, which has claimed just about 6,000 lives to date, accounts for a minuscule 4.5 per cent of all NCD deaths in Kenya. The deaths are linked to unhealthy lifestyles like tobacco use, consumption of unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, and harmful use of alcohol.
Why is Makumi’s opinion important in this debate? Because he sits on the board of trustees of the National Cancer Institute, which deals with the second most important NCD after cardiovascular diseases, and which claims 115 lives daily. He’s concerned that, even before the coronavirus outbreak, cancer was responsible for seven per cent of all deaths in Kenya.
When Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe launched the Kenya Cancer Policy 2019-2030, he noted that cancer was the third leading cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. The policy document says NCDs account for more than 50 per cent of total hospital admissions and over 55 per cent of hospital deaths — ”actually 60 per cent” — says Makumi. And yet, the gravity of NCDs is not reflected in financial allocations to them.
Kenya’s response to Covid-19
The “National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases 2021/22 – 2025/26” reveals that, although Sh50.6 billion was spent on NCDs in the 2017/18 financial year, the amount was only 11 per cent of the total required.
Dr Wahome Ngare, the national chairman of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association (KCDA) concurs — that expenditure on Covid-19 far exceeds spending on other health conditions. The consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist interrogates the money so far spent in the rollout and execution of the vaccination initiative against Covid-19. The government, he says, needs Sh34 billion for the first phase of the Covid-19 vaccination and has already spent Sh14 billion. Dr Ngare estimates Sh5,000 per person as the needed amount to treat a Covid patient.
This writer also sought the opinion of clinical psychologist Gladys Mwiti. She posits that Covid-19 has emotional, mental, social and the relational dimensions.
“So when we put all the oxygen tanks in hospitals—which is okay because that’s how we’re meant to respond—and not enough emphasis on its mental impact, everything else crumbles.” She emphasises prevention as a missing link in the national Covid-19 response.
“People become ill because they don’t know how to deal with stress and anxiety, broken relationships, poverty and remote working as a result of the pandemic.” Psycho-education in regards to Covid-19, is “what we needed like yesterday,” she quips.
What emerges from picking the brains of these specialists is that Kenya’s response to Covid-19 is captive to one-track thinking. We’ve forgotten that, even before the pandemic, the healthcare system was already over-burdened with NCDs, which accounted for 60 per cent of bed occupancy.
What is needed is a multi-pronged approach to healthcare because, NCDs too, have been a pandemic, only that they’re in slow motion and not as dramatic as Covid-19, which needs oxygen machines and ventilators, and which are now attracting all the research funds.
Ms Kweyu is a revise editor at ‘Daily Nation’. [email protected]